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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Gulf War: The Iraqi police who received training from former East Palo Alto officer Robert Cole are shown here practicing a search maneuver. During his year in Iraq, Cole discovered it's not easy to bridge the gap between two very different cultures.

Training Daze

Ever wonder what Americans 'training Iraqi forces' are actually doing? Or if it's going to work?

By Vrinda Normand

WHEN former East Palo Alto police Sgt. Robert Cole signed up to train the Iraqi police force in June of 2004, he brought with him decades of law enforcement experience and bags of advanced gear, but he never expected to spend so much time sipping tea.

This social ritual was one thing the Americans couldn't mess with. Our troops could turn the dictatorship upside down, but Iraqis are still going to have their brew before anything gets done. And sometimes very little gets done if teatime takes up half the day.

But Cole had to compromise because he knew offending the locals would only get him off to a bad start. Throughout his mission, Cole walked a fine line between resistance and acceptance as he tried to mediate between two very different cultures.

He lived in Iraq for a year, preparing the local security forces that will, U.S. leaders hope, allow for a successful withdrawal. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is so confident in the progress that he is discussing exit strategies for early next year.

Not so fast, Cole warns. Although he saw much improvement, he believes there is still a long way to go. The obstacles he encountered in the war-torn country are still fresh in his mind since returning home last month.

From mortar attacks on his sleeping quarters at base camp to infiltrators wearing stolen police uniforms, Cole tackled one of the most dangerous jobs around. Living through it certainly paid off—$140,000 from DynCorp, the company contracted with the U.S. Department of Defense. For security reasons, DynCorp representative Chanel Mann couldn't say how many police trainers they have sent to Iraq, but a recent Business Week article pegged the number at over 800.

The same article claimed the police training mission is not moving forward as fast as U.S. officials would suggest. Only 39 percent of the national Iraqi police force (142,000) is ready for duty. More than 1,500 of them have been killed and 6,000 injured (largely by insurgents bent on hindering the occupation). Moreover, American trainers are still combating Saddam's legacy of human rights abuses and corruption.

Cole's experience with the East Palo Alto Police Department, he says, provided a good background for dealing with dirty cops. In 2002, he won a half-million-dollar settlement for being terminated three years earlier, allegedly because he had tried to discipline a gang of rogue cops called the Wolf Pack. Rumors of the Wolf Pack still abound, namely in the case of Sgt. Tracy Frey who claims his job is in jeopardy for the same reason.

Cole, now 46, offers a firsthand account of the occupation's inner workings. At 5 feet 11 inches with a medium build, he admits in a Southern drawl that he doesn't look like a "real bad ass." But his adaptability and awareness are what helped him deal with four major barriers that have many questioning the chances of success for the American mission in Iraq.

1. Hatred

In the dimly lit lounge at a Fremont hotel, Cole leans forward in his chair and says quietly, "If I was sitting here, seething with anger, you could feel it. Even if I didn't say anything." That's what he felt from many of the Iraqi people—an undercurrent of tangible hatred. When little kids waved at American soldiers, parents would slap them and pull them into the house. When Cole and the other trainers visited a cafe, patrons would get up and leave.

The police trainer found that even Iraqis employed at American base camps would slyly stare him down until he got close enough to say hi. Then they would flash a fake smile.

People in the northern province of Kurdistan, where Cole spent much of his time, tended to be friendlier because they had been persecuted by Hussein. But the American forces there still encountered resistance, and relying on the loyalty of local security personnel proved to be a risky gamble.

In June, at his camp in the Kurdish town of Sulaymaniyah, Cole got wind of an imminent insurgent attack on the police training quarters. The terrorists had recruited a dozen of the men working at the checkpoint to gain access to the American operation. Within a couple of hours, Cole managed to scramble together a line of defense. At 2am, the anticipated time of attack, nothing happened, but the extra security system Cole established remained in place. He received an award for his effort that day.

Keeping the police recruits in line added another dimension of instability. Aside from not knowing who was who, American forces had problems with Iraqi recruits running away from insurgent attacks instead of standing and fighting. Business Week reports that some are also selling their American-issued weapons on the black market.

Despite the obvious tensions, Cole says he made a conscious decision not to analyze the reasons why Americans were in Iraq or why President Bush started the war in the first place. If he had entertained those thoughts, he says, he might have been killed by the distraction. He accepted the job merely to put his skills to good use for a decent living—and did nothing else but focus on completing the task at hand.

2. Harsh Conditions

As if maintaining a fledgling government during wartime weren't difficult enough, security forces have to lug around gun belts and bulletproof vests in the desert heat. When Cole arrived last summer, temperatures in Iraq soared to 125 degrees. The concrete got so hot it could melt the rubber soles on shoes, and anyone with a weapon had to wear gloves to prevent the metal from searing their skin.

"Samarra was blistery hot and ugly," Cole says about the town where he was temporarily stationed to prepare for the country's first national election. "And on top of that, the insurgents are trying to kill you."

Cole and the other trainers often slept in army tents or abandoned torture houses. One such building still had meat hooks hanging from the ceiling—a sign of the policing tradition that relied on force, fear and intimidation.

In this tense atmosphere, trainers constructed makeshift police academies. They used plastic porta-potties and old cement watchtowers to recreate combat scenarios. They set up firing ranges and ran recruits up and down hills to get them in shape. There often wasn't enough equipment (like radios and vehicles), but Cole made do with what he had to teach the nuts and bolts of American-style police work. In many cases, he was supervising 500 men with only eight other trainers.

Drilling these technical skills was probably the easiest part of the operation—Cole also had to instruct on aspects of democratic policing, a concept that was totally new to his students.

3. Sleeping on The Job

While Cole made some adjustments to accommodate teatime, he did not compromise his core law enforcement values. On one level, this meant discouraging torture tactics and other human rights abuses that many Iraqi police officers were accustomed to. It also meant getting them out of the police station and into the community.

Iraqi police tend to spend all day in the station, passing the time by drinking tea, chatting or sleeping—something Cole advised against after unsuspecting nappers died in bomb raids.

"We showed them what we believe is a better way to do things," he says.

But he adds that he never forced recruits to accept anything. If they had totally refused to go on a field trip to learn how to mingle with citizens, Cole says he would have backed off. But after a little prodding, several Kurdish trainees agreed to tag along.

Photos of this winter expedition in the small northern village of Sarga show a rocky landscape dotted with snow. Children with knit hats tied around their ears and elderly women with deep lines in their faces smile at Cole's digital camera. In some shots, the trainees stand by awkwardly with stone-faced expressions. But Cole says they soon warmed up, giving little kids pieces of candy from their pockets. Several small video clips show the men standing arm in arm, yelling in unison, "Good morning, America."

Despite the cultural differences between Iraqi recruits and American trainers, Cole says that in general his students showed a genuine desire to learn. They seemed impressed with American equipment and organization.

Establishing this trust was extremely difficult in the face of constant threat from insurgents, who would terrorize anyone associated with the American mission.

4. Insurgents

From the very hours he arrived at the American headquarters in Baghdad, Cole found himself dodging insurgent attacks. "They were constantly watching us," he says. They knew exactly when the 88 new police trainers would be in the fortified courtyard loading their gear. So they shot four mortars at the crew, missing by only 10 feet.

The small missiles whistled over the intended target into an adjacent neighborhood, killing four kids who were playing outside.

"We felt so bad," Cole says, "That was supposed to be our death." Not knowing what else to do, the group took up a collection for the family.

Explosions like this would follow him around the country.

In December of 2004, Cole was temporarily assigned to prepare security for the elections in Samarra, a town that is believed to harbor many Hussein supporters. "All hell was expected to break loose," Cole says. He wasn't present to witness the elections on Jan. 1 (on his two-week leave in Germany), but he did get a taste of chaos beforehand.

One evening, insurgents fired a mortar round on the sleeping area of the base camp. Luckily it was too early for anyone to be in bed, and only four people were injured.

"They will do anything to drive us out," Cole says.

The insurgents once set up a fake checkpoint in Kurdistan and executed 60 military trainees that had just been relieved for vacation. Cole took photos of the casualties lined up in rows, bullet holes visible in their torn clothing and burned skin peeling from their limbs.

Incidents like these aren't unusual. Mann from DynCorp says that in very high-risk areas Iraqi police aren't yet free to assert their presence in uniform because they would be making themselves easy targets.

This internal violence has convinced Cole that an Iraqi civil war is very likely to happen as soon as the U.S. pulls out. He witnessed strong ethnic tensions, he says, that probably won't disappear in the few years it takes Americans to build a police force.


Robert Cole educates about police reform in the Bay Area and can be contacted at america1@cox.net.


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From the August 17-23, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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